There is no way I could walk a mile in my daughter’s shoes.
Like millions of kids around the world, she is addicted to Heelys, the hybrid skate-sneakers with a removable wheel in each heel. She got them for Christmas after pining over them for months, and she has been alternately clomping and gliding across our hardwood floors ever since.
Sold in more than 60 countries, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, the shoes are an international phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing down. But as sales increase, so does the controversy. Heelys have been banned from schools and shopping malls because of safety concerns, and a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization called W.A.T.C.H. (World Against Toys Causing Harm Inc.) placed them at the top of its 2006 list of the 10 worst toys.
I first saw Heelys in September 2003, when some kids from California who were visiting the area stopped by our garage sale and amazed us by gliding down the driveway on their sneakers. It has taken a while for the trend to reach Oneonta, but it is definitely here. "I see so many kids with those things," said a checkout clerk at a local supermarket, which, from a kid’s perspective, is the perfect venue for "heeling," with its long aisles and smooth floors.
My daughter says at least 10 of the 21 kids in her fourth-grade class have Heelys. The shoes come with a wheel-removal tool and a heel plug that is inserted into the hole where the wheel was, converting the skates to regular sneakers. Students aren’t allowed to use the wheels on school grounds _ but they still wear the shoes, often decorated with colorful laces.
Part extreme sport, part hot toy, part clothing trend _ there’s no question, Heelys are unique. They’re a toy you can wear, and that gives them far greater mass appeal than the Rubik’s cubes and Jordache jeans of my elementary school days. "They’re addictive," my daughter says. "Once you learn how to heel, it’s just like, `Wow, this is so fun. I want to do this all day!’"
Part of the appeal is that you can’t use Heelys whenever you want _ but because you technically could, you want to do it all the time. And that’s the flip side. It is all too tempting for kids to keep the wheels in the shoes, just waiting for the chance to skate. And they do. Take a walk around Oneonta and you’ll see kids gliding across grooved mall floors and down cracked sidewalks _ often with no protective gear. And because they look like regular sneakers even with the wheels in, it’s easy for kids to break safety rules _ walking up and down stairs, for example _ without their parents realizing it.
Pediatricians are seeing children with fractured wrists and concussions from falls they took while wearing Heelys. There have also been issues with endangering others by skating in crowded areas; earlier this month, a 19-year-old was arrested for disorderly conduct after he refused to stop heeling in a Rochester shopping mall.
To its credit, Heelys Inc. pushes safety. It sells protective gear _ including helmets, wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads _ and lists safety rules in the instructions that come with the shoes and on its website. But its marketing pitch contradicts the safety message, promising kids they can "roll into all situations" and touting the shoes’ ability to allow "athletes of all skill levels to walk, run and transition to a roll at any moment."
Kids make heeling look so easy that parents may not realize how fast they can go or how quickly they could lose their balance. I admit that it didn’t truly sink in for me until I tried them myself. "Step and glide, step and glide," Abby instructed, giggling as I stepped forward, lifted my toes off the floor _ and grabbed the edge of the dining room table for dear life as soon as I started to roll.
So what’s a parent of a Heelys addict to do? All sports carry risks of injury, and there’s a fine line between being cautious and being paranoid.
We don’t let our kids ride bikes without a helmet, but we take them to roller-skating birthday parties where they zoom around the rink with no protective gear. Are Heelys more dangerous than roller skates? Probably not, when used properly. Kids should use common sense and show common courtesy; parents should set safety rules and pay attention.
Eventually, a new "it" toy or sport will come along, and the Heelys trend will lose momentum. Until then, parents and kids need to work together to find a balance between fun and safety.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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